kids

Roselee and Paul Wheeler talk Friday about raising their 16-month-old granddaughter, Rashaye. While many grandparents bear the burden of caring for their grandchildren, few services and support are available to them. Despite that, the Wheelers say they would do nothing else.

The house on Summit Street has all the signs of a young family.

The sticker on the back of the minivan in the carport reads “Charles Russell Indians,” so you can tell right away there’s an elementary school basketball player.

Right beside the driveway is a tiny plastic swing in primary colors; inside the door plush toys are strewn here and there, so there must be a toddler, too.

The ballplayer is Albert Wheeler, who is almost 9 and in the fourth grade. His sister Rashaye is a 16-month-old perpetual motion machine who insists on shaking hands with guests.

They live with Paul and Rosalee Wheeler, their grandparents. The Wheelers — Paul is 56 and Rosalee is 51 — have had custody of both children since birth.

Their daughter Amanda is the children’s mother. A troubled past and continued mental and emotional turbulence make it impossible for her to raise her own kids, so the Wheelers are doing the best they can to make a second family.

It hasn’t been all easy. Rosalee had just gone back to college and Paul was working on the river when Albert was born and responsibility for him was thrust upon them.

They’d assured their daughter of their support whether she decided to keep the baby or give it up for adoption. When Albert was born they realized their daughter didn’t have the patience to raise a child so they shouldered the burden themselves.

Albert’s birth was a shock. “It just floored us,” Paul said. At the time his first concern was for his daughter. It wasn’t until he actually saw his grandson for the first time that he was able to cope with the news.

He was on one of his month-long stints on the river when he got the call that Albert had been born. Hearing the news over the phone, it just didn’t seem real. But when he returned home for a month and looked into his grandson’s eyes, the bond was immediate. “When I saw him, that was it,” he said.

Later, when Rashaye came along, it just seemed natural to take her in.

For Rosalee, little soul-searching was necessary. “For me it was simple. For me, loving kids is the easiest thing,” Rosalee said.

The Wheelers have had to adjust. The shelf below the TV that once held CDs now is stuffed with toys and picture books. The rest of the house is kid-proofed.

Both children are hearing-impaired, so the Wheelers also have to make time for doctor and therapy sessions.

They’ve adjusted emotionally as well. Where their daughter’s troubles once consumed them, they’ve had to shift priorities to their grandchildren.

It may have helped that the idea of grandparents raising grandchildren wasn’t new to them. In both their families, relatives have taken in children when necessary. Paul’s father was raised by an uncle and one of Rosalee’s grandmothers adopted a grandchild.

If there’s anything they fret about, it’s the inevitability of aging. They’ve made contingency plans with other relatives to take the children if anything happens to them, but that doesn’t stop them from worrying. “My biggest concern is living long enough to get them raised,” Paul said.

People he socializes with sometimes tell Paul they’re doing a noble thing to take in two little ones, but he thinks about the kids and shrugs it off. Most people would do the same because kids are kids and family is family. “It’s a no-brainer,” he said.

It’s not that they wouldn’t have preferred that life take its normal course. If that had happened, their daughter would have matured into a loving and responsible mother and they’d have the usual prerogatives of grandparents — spoil ’em and send ’em home.

But it didn’t work out that way and they’ve accepted it. “It wasn’t our choice to make,” Rosalee said.

Keeping up with little ones is a challenge best left to the young, but the Wheelers make the best of it even at their ages. Rosalee has recovered from one heart attack and has to watch her health.

Ironically, chasing after Rashaye may have had health benefits. Rosalee feels like she’s gained more flexibility in her joints with all the chasing and bending that makes up her days.

Also more flexible are their attitudes about childrearing. When Rashaye grabs a visitor’s pen and scribbles on the sole of her foot, she looks on and smiles. The time was when she would have whisked her off to the bathroom and taken a washcloth to the inky foot and then changed her clothes.

The Wheelers have the support of their relatives, friends and members of their church, and their own close relationship is a key. “We’re best friends and we talk about things,” Rosalee said.

Ultimately, people choose whether to make a difficult situation bearable, Rosalee believes. “You’ve got to make up your mind whether to be happy or not. We choose to be happy.”

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